The Better Cotton Initiative is expanding its reach along the supply chain

The Better Cotton Initiative is expanding its reach along the supply chain

Global brands and retailers are working together to source more Better Cotton for their products in the hope that creating demand down the supply chain will eventually see sustainable cotton become the norm. As the first fibres from the initiative start to make their way into clothing, Levi Strauss and Marks & Spencer joined other stakeholders to explain what they hope to achieve.

Collective corporate responsibility activities in the clothing industry reached new heights this year, from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which brings together a group of global brands and retailers to measure the sustainability of their products, to joint efforts by Adidas, C&A, H&M, Li Ning, Nike and Puma to eliminate the discharge of hazardous chemicals from their supply chains.

But another group of global brands and retailers is also working together to try to transform the textile market by creating demand down the supply chain for more sustainable cotton.

The Better Cotton Initiative counts companies such as Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, H&M and Adidas among its core founders, who hope that promoting the improved environmental and social benefits of sustainably grown cotton will make it the norm - not the exception - in clothing production.

Not only does Better Cotton aim to reduce the usage of pesticides, but it promotes efficient water use, crop rotation and sound working conditions.

And a number of NGOs are also working with the scheme, including the Solidaridad Foundation, WWF, and the Pesticides Action Network, to implement more sustainable cotton farming practices at small-holder farms around the world.

Making it mainstream
Speaking at a round table event in London last week, representatives from Marks & Spencer and Levi's joined other stakeholders to explain how, and why, they want Better Cotton to go mainstream.

According to producer support officer Maaike Schouten from the Solidaridad Foundation, Better Cotton offers a "middle way" for farmers who might not be able to implement more rigid schemes like Fairtrade or organic certification programmes.

Another difference is that unlike Fairtrade or organic cotton, Better Cotton is not sold at a premium, so farmers are able to sell it to whomever they like at whatever price they can get.

Of course this also means Better Cotton Initiative members have to compete with non-members for these more sustainable supplies. "The market will determine the weight for BCI cotton," says Marks & Spencer raw materials specialist Mark Sumner.

The initiative focuses on helping farmers shift from a chemically intensive production strategy to a knowledge driven one.

Speaking about some of the steps the programme has taken, Pesticides Action Network director Keith Tyrell says by teaching farmers to identify pests and how to combat them, they have cut their pesticide use by two-thirds in India. He says farmers are "quite easy to persuade" given that some 60% of their income can be lost in pesticide costs.

BCI director Lise Melvin also notes farmers have reduced their water use by 40% in Pakistan through the scheme, as part of a shifting from flooding and groundwater extraction to bed and furrow or drip irrigation schemes.

She also highlights how the programme is teaching farmers to apply nutrients "based on need rather than habits", and helping them to make informed decisions, which is in turn boosting their profitability.

Sumner says the disparate nature of the industry has, until now, been one of the main issues preventing brands from implementing schemes like this.

Cotton is grown in 80 countries around the world, employing more than 300m workers and, with more than 90% of farmers living in developing countries on farms of less than two hectares, traceability has been a major hurdle.

Combine this with "some parts of the textile industry" not wanting retailers to know where "things" are coming from has made it difficult to find a solution, Sumner adds.

Supply chain involvement
As brands make commitments to source more Better Cotton for their products - 2m pairs of Levi’s and Denizen jeans made with Better Cotton hit its retail stores this autumn, while Adidas Group earlier this year committed to 100% Better Cotton in its products by 2018 - other layers of the supply chain are also looking to get involved.

Michael Kobori, vice president of supply chain, social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss, says the initiative will scale up through these commitments like this.

He also explains that as the jeans company goes to its fabric mills seeking sources of Better Cotton and brings them into its supply chain, Levi's is defining how it wants to see the future, and how its relationships will evolve. "Mills get that message," Kobori emphasises.

The group is being funded in a number of ways - through company memberships as well as funding from the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative and the Interchurch Organisation for Development Co-operation (ICCO).

But while the retailers and brands involved in the Better Cotton Initiative are proud to sing its praises, there are no plans to launch a consumer facing label. "We don't want a label - we want all cotton to be Better Cotton", says Tyrell.